The Sorrows of Young Telemachus
February 25, 2017
“‘Not at all,’ replied Mentor; ‘for by the pains you take to search for able and virtuous men, in order to prefer them, you stimulate and animate all who have spirit and talents, so that they exert themselves to the utmost. How many languish in indolence and obscurity, who would become great men, were they excited by emulation, and the hope of success? How many are tempted to try to raise themselves by indirect methods from poverty, because they find it impossible to raise themselves by virtue? If then you shall distinguish virtue and genius by honors and rewards, what numbers of your subjects will endeavor to attain these qualifications! how many good subjects too may be formed by advancing them step by step from the lowest to the highest employments! thereby you will exercise their talents, discover the extent of their capacity, and try the sincerity of their virtue.’”
— François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses
The era in which we now find ourselves is no different from any of the eras that came before, as our era, like all the ones that preceded it, is an era of transformation and radical change. In my last article I dealt with the study of the History of Ideas, and how it can be used to gain cultural influence in a decultured environment. It is not that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, it’s that those who study history multiply their options for confronting novel historical situations significantly. History is not a locked pattern, playing itself out endlessly, it is rather a process of active adaptation and improvisation to changing world historical circumstances. Retrieving a forgotten concept from the historical storehouse of ideas, and repurposing it to fit a parallel contemporary situation can be a powerful way of breaking through the rigid but no longer functional patterns of thought which dominate our ability to understand our own position in history.
One such concept, which I believe has more than a little applicability to our current situation, is that of Bildung, which developed in late 18th century Germany as a powerful cultural focal point that allowed a German Culture to overcome and emerge out of the politically fragmented environment of the Holy Roman Empire. During the 18th century the different nations of Europe all experimented in creating modern cultures capable of supporting mass literacy, industrialization, and international (and even Global) economic, political and cultural competition. The ability of a nation to harness the power of its own population, its own People, was paramount not only to encouraging industry, but to allowing moral authority to operate on a much wider scale so as to facilitate a significant expansion in the size and scope of Society. The pursuit of a modern culture, which allowed all the productive (both in an economic and social sense) forces of nation to be fully integrated, was the raison d’être of European cultural activity following the reign of Louis XIV during the gradual decline of the ancien régime.
America, in the 21st century, is in the unfortunate position of playing the role of France in our current reenactment 18th century political and social upheaval. The culture of Louis XIV was imitated all over Europe, its music and opera, the architecture of Versailles, the highly ritualized court (where the courtiers had to attend and participate in the morning and evening routines of the King and Queen every day), this model of French court culture become the gold standard imitated by minor princes throughout the continent. Meanwhile French become the universal language of polite society, and was spoken exclusively at the courts of monarchs as great as Frederick II of Prussia. For a young man, like Goethe, who, growing up, lived through the French Occupation of Frankfurt during the Seven Years War, French culture was ubiquitous, and the French theater represented, internationally, the bleeding edge of literary fashion, much like Hollywood today.
The United States today plays the role of international superpower. Our military strength makes it so no other nation, by herself, could hope to prevail in a contest against us. France, during the 18th century, found itself caught in a similar dynamic. France represented to Europe not just a great power, but the threat of ‘Universal Monarchy,’ of a pan-European state ruled by France. To combat this threat the other states of Europe formed among themselves a series of coalitions to check French dominion and actively maintain the balance of power on the continent. In much the same way China, Russia, Iran and other rivals and opponents of American power today are forced into an unlikely coalition against us in order to maintain the international balance of power and check the influence of American dominated international institutions like NATO and the United Nations.
Though France had an extensive economic base on which to draw, it also struggled to exploit it, and while Great Britain became wealthy from trade, France anxiously pursued interior agricultural reforms that in the end proved to be disastrous. America in much the same way sees its economic prospects diminishing, and it is an open question whether our neglected infrastructure can even support a next-generation economy.
Though we live in a seemingly open, and liberal age, discontent is widespread, and there is no agreement on what kind of reform is necessary even to combat or redirect the nervous energy of our society into more productive and constructive channels. Whether someday soon we will collapse, like France, into a Revolution that will prove our undoing is by no means a foregone convulsion though. Circumstances unfold around us, not History, and what History will be depends on how we understand and respond to the circumstances we observe transpiring around us. All we know for certain is that placed in such a precarious position, France failed to rise to the occasion, so if we are going to find an alternative, we must look elsewhere.
In our quest to locate an alternative we must look to an unlikely place, to a provincial and obscure duchy of the Holy Roman Empire, Saxe-Weimar. Weimar, the duchy’s capital was no London, or Rome, or Paris. It’s population during the later portion of the 18th century hovered around 6,000. Whereas the major metropolises of modern Europe swelled to contain hundreds of thousands of people for the first time during the 18th century, the entire population of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar amounted to scarcely more than 100,000. This duchy was not geographically settled either, it was an arbitrary amalgamation of small territorial micro-units, cobbled together as an ongoing aristocratic business venture of a small and out of the way branch of a 750 year old European dynasty which had, at intervals, ruled all over Europe. The local university, located in the neighboring town of Jena, was administered cooperatively by Weimar along with 2 other nearby duchies and there was not always agreement among them about how the University should be run. Likewise it was difficult for minor states like Saxe-Weimar to construct roads or engage in projects of public improvement due to issues of fragmented usage rights to land and natural resources. The modest stature of the place is confirmed for as well by the size and discipline of its military, which mostly consisted of some ceremonial hussars who served more often as letter-carriers than soldiers.
While the French Revolution and Terror raged only a short ways away, to the west, Weimar underwent a cultural revolution that observers then and now agree was of equal significance to the political upheaval occurring 500 miles away in Paris. Goethe, who first moved to Weimar in 1775, experienced the turmoil of the Revolutionary era first hand, when, as Saxe-Weimar’s minister of war, he accompanied his Duke, Karl August, on campaign against the French Republican Army in 1791. The campaign went badly, and the retreat was plagued by rain and bad weather. Horses laid down and died in the mud and the wreckage of ruined carriages had to be laboriously cleared from the filth in order for the wasted army to return home. Refugees fled in every direction, looking to escape the war, and Goethe was exposed to human misery on an unprecedented scale, to a great confusion and disorder which he then and there recognized was the true enemy of humankind.
Stopping at Pempelfort on his way home to his mistress and child in Weimar, he stayed and recovered briefly at the home of his former rival, Friedrich Jacobi, a literary provocateur who had initiated the famous Pantheism Controversy of the 1780’s in which many aspiring intellectuals of the time had tried to find their fame. After the horrors of the campaign Goethe could not help but observe: “I had not met those friends for many years, they had remained faithful to their way of life, whereas I had become a quite different person…” Back during the heady days of the mid-1770’s, when he was first beginning to make a mark on the world of German letters, Jacobi and Goethe had traveled around the country merrily pulling pranks on one another while they enjoyed their newfound fame and reputation with the reading public. That had been the era of Sturm und Drang, of radical sentimentalism and looming revolution. After Goethe’s retreat from Valmy however, it was impossible to deny that History had taken a turn for the worse, and that the promise of yesterday suddenly seemed to have slipped his generation by completely, leaving only suffering in its absence.
Unexpectedly, within only a few years, things would appear in quite a different light, as Weimar burst forth into an cultural epoch of great intellectual variety and innovation, for Goethe was not alone in the cultural and political administration of Weimar, and though he may have been its crown jewel, he was set against a brilliant backdrop of literary, scientific, and philosophical talent. C.M. Wieland, a significant, though now obscure, German man of letters had been the first cultural acquisition of Weimar, and had served as the Duke’s tutor during his years of minority. Wieland wrote polite novels and rococo fairy tales in the style of Fénelon’s Telemachus, a famous French allegorical novel of the 17th century which explicated the Enlightened political morality princes should be educated in before ruling. It is his own novel, Agathon, which initiated the German Bildungsroman tradition, though the idea of political education was to undergo a radical reworking the hands of the other writers and philosophers who followed him to Weimar in the 1770’s and 80’s.
Another personality who had joined the administration of Saxe-Weimar shortly before Goethe did was none other than the Mentor to his Telemachus, Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder, a bitter theologian who took up the post of chief ecclesiastical officer of the Saxe-Weimar church, was also one of the founders of the discipline of anthropology. He was a supporter of the French Revolution and a sometimes Progressive historicist who is credited by none other than Schelling with defining the character and parameters of modern historical thinking. Goethe’s relationship with Herder was fraught with frequent breaks and reconciliations. He recalls fondly in his autobiography how Herder read Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield aloud to his circle of friends while he finished his law degree in Strasbourg, and in the 1780s, when they studied Spinoza together with the Countess von Stein, Goethe likely viewed Herder as his closest contemporary and cultural ally.
A new crop of writers and thinkers began settling in Weimar towards the end of the 1780’s however, and though Goethe remained aloof from new members of Weimar society, like Schiller, following his return from Italy, the dual revolutions of Kantianism and the French Revolution soon gave a sharp new turn and impetus to how Goethe and his immediate contemporaries conceptualized their cultural mission. With the publication of works like Herder’s Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Humanity, Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the concept of political education that had dominated from Telemachus to Agathon was replaced by one of Bildung. This concept of Bildung not only necessitated a rethinking of educational aims and ideals, but also a fundamental rethinking of how individuals interacted within society in a general sense. It was to serve as the totalizing concept of the emergent German novel, the infamous (and some say anachronistic and neologistic) Bildungsroman, which, in turn, would become the dominant model of the European novel during the 19th century.
We sometimes hear that our Society is a kind of organism, a giant person consisting of individuals which circulate through it like blood cells. A giant man ruled by the brain of government and who goes around grasping with limbs of commerce and militarism everything within arm’s reach. Society, however, may perhaps be better understood not only as an organism, but also as an ecosystem. In a sense, perhaps, an ecosystem can be understood as an organism, as all life is interdependent, but the relationship between the parts of an ecosystem is not the same one that defines our notion of the body politic. An ecosystem is a balance, it is sculpted by the powers of all of its constituent parts working like forces upon one another. As the historical climate and physical environment changes, our society favors new and different traits to again create a balancing of forces. The organisms which make up an ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself are in a constant interplay with one another and with the physical world they both inhabit. Should a key link in the food chain go extinct, other animals will starve and the whole ecosystem will be disrupted. Animals, for their part, must seek out and adapt to niches provided by the ecosystem in order to survive, and in general it suffices to say that there is a mutual development which transcends the life or death of an individual member, but has to do with the continuation of life across entire geological epochs and its ceaseless adaptation to changing climates and geologies.
This is Bildung. The concept does not entail merely education, or even only the personal spiritual development of the individual, but points to the co-development of the individual, the public (as an entity) and the institutional state. The individual is a member of the public, from which the state derives its authority, but the state in turn can only govern individuals, as the public (as entity) is merely an abstraction and only the individuals it symbolically represents can ever be subjected to the rule and punishment of law. This delicate developmental trichotomy is the central axis of the Bildungsroman as it came to be conceived by Goethe in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but it was far from the only attempt by a contemporary writer to work out a complete elaboration of the mysterious relationship between these forces.
As we saw at the outset there are historical parallels to be drawn between our own age and the 18th century. Nations were intensely interested in developing cultures which could tap into the potential of individuals, and bring them together for cooperative mass action. As is the case today, this was sometimes easier said than done, and many of the most promising members of society, from composers to writers to professors and intellectuals, oftentimes found it difficult to find a niche to occupy where they could contribute in a productive way to the simultaneous betterment of both themselves, and society as a whole.
The history of German literature during the last quarter of the 18th century is a testament to poor allocation by society of its intellectual and creative resources, as we again and again meet with tragic cases and reports of financial hardship and professional instability. The most striking portrait of the promising young man’s struggle (and failure) to realize his potential in a badly organized society is undoubtedly Karl Philip Mortiz’s psychological Bildungsroman Anton Reiser. Not only that book, but Moritz’s own biography demonstrate all too clearly the kinds of options a young man had available to him. In the novel the protagonist Reiser vacillates between dreams of being a preacher, a teacher, or an actor. In all three modes it is the authoritative position of central attention that attracts them. In all three he sees himself as instructing mankind, at least in different ways. As he pursues these goals he is constantly thwarted by social anxiety and his inability to navigate the paths which he believes society has laid out for people to follow. He resolves to commit to a career on the stage, runs away from school to join an acting troupe, is rejected because he’s ugly and going bald, wanders the countryside delusively agonizing over his own fate, and before he knows it is at a church or monastery where he changes his mind once more and decides to become a preacher again.
In reality, as we see from Mortiz’s biography, none of these options were all that attractive. Even if one were to get a post in the clergy, Anton Reiser meets intelligent men who had spent their whole lives languishing in poverty in underpaid posts where they never attained any real security of position. Moritz eventually went on himself to work as a teacher and professor in Berlin, but the conditions he met with working in charity schools were dismal, and even after becoming a professor the actual financial rewards of the title turned out to be quite meager. Moritz, after befriending Goethe in Italy and staying in Weimar for a time, went on to die an early death not long thereafter, and his case is only one among many. Friedrich Hölderlin, Schiller’s protegee, who wrote the great Bildungsroman Hyperion, struggled to secure a permanent post. He worked as a tutor and fought with his mother over an inheritance she refused to turn over. After suffering an unknown accident while traveling to France to assume a position as a librarian, Hölderlin suffered a complete nervous breakdown and spent the remainder of his lifetime (40 years) as an invalid living on charity in the home of carpenter.
The Bildungsroman, in this way, is not just a story of personal education. The genre entails a sociological and anthropological investigation of why individuals succeed or failed to find places for themselves within society. Though there were many such investigations, one model above all others emerged as superior, that of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It is Goethe’s insight that Society and Culture are separate, and that the individual stands in a different relationship to each than he does to the other. This is accomplished in the novel’s dual denouements. The book has two endings, a physical denouement where Wilhelm formally join Society (as represented by the Society of the Tower), and a cultural denouement, where he willingly accepts his place and role in that Society. These two developments go hand in hand for Goethe, as without cultural integration, accomplished by art like Wilhelm Meister, mounting an effective physical society is impossible. Likewise, without a physical framework of institutions to serve as a medium for interaction, culture will lack any secure basis for structured growth. The individual is the linchpin, as he connects the two things together, and it is for this reason that his own development is fundamental, because it is only through his development that the whole trichotomy can be developed in all its constituent elements.
To follow then, on my previous essay, Bildung may very well be a useful concept offered by the history of ideas, one that we can repurpose to repair the fragmentation and disillusionment everyone today seems to feel at their inability to find a seat at the table of society. The responsibility does not fall on the state, or society alone to find a place for everyone, it rests also on the individual to carve a niche for himself. By adopting a cultural conception that allowed Weimar to culturally flourish during a time of great change, perhaps we can avoid the fate of France, and take a different path this time in our way through the forest of history.